Psalm 42; John 20: 19-29
There is a myth out there that I encounter a lot as a Pastor, and that myth is that we shouldn’t ask too many questions as people of faith. Like all myths, it is based in some reality and some perception. There are definitely churches and religious leaders in the world that discourage asking questions— many of you have told me your stories about times you asked questions and were given pat answers that discouraged you from probing further. But there’s also just the more basic experience of being a child asking adults questions that they don’t know how to answer, and either being put off or dismissed, and internalizing at that point that maybe we shouldn’t ask those questions.
BJ Miller, a palliative care physician, talks about how questions change as we grow. When we are young we tend to ask the big questions without any embarrassment— who am I, why am I here, what is the purpose of life? But at some point in our growing up, we shy away from those questions. Maybe they seem too big or we realize others don’t know how to answer them or daily life just gets in the way— but when we are faced with our own mortality, through crisis or old age, we begin to ask those big questions again. (1)
Questions lead us into interesting places, without which, life would be pretty bland. But that also means that sometimes we can’t answer the questions we have, and not everyone is comfortable with that.
Scientists, of course, have to learn to be comfortable with questions. One of the first things you learn as a kid in a science class, is that there are four basic steps to approaching life from a scientific perspective: Observe your surroundings; question what is happening; form a hypothesis or a guess as to what’s happening in what you are observing; and then test whether your hypothesis is true. In other words, without asking questions about what we are observing in our lives, it would be impossible to come up with new understandings.
The same is true with faith. We are asking questions of our faith, questions about God, all the time— especially when something happens in our life that we were not expecting or something awful happens— and when we are in a community of faith that encourages that exploration, then faith can deepen in those times of struggle and joy. If we, as a community of faith, however, tell people they can’t ask questions during difficult times, or we create a space where people feel like they shouldn’t explore those big questions, or just give the impression that they’re the only one exploring those questions, then sometimes people just give up because they feel ashamed that they don’t already have the answers.
In our Gospel this morning, the disciples are huddled together in the upper room behind a locked door. Jesus died just three days before— a bloody, gruesome, intentionally violent death by their own government— and they are terrified. This was the man they had pinned all of their hopes to— the one that had given them hope to begin with. Jesus had come into their life three years before and had taught them to ask different questions than the ones they had been asking. When they asked, “Will we be the greatest in your Kingdom?” Jesus taught them to ask, “How can I be a servant?” When they asked, “How can I inherit eternal life?” Jesus taught them to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” When they asked, “How can we possibly feed all of these people?” Jesus taught them to ask, “Who has food to share?” When they asked, “Lord, why weren’t you here to save my brother?” Jesus taught them to ask, “What is impossible with God?”
Jesus had slowly but surely been answering their questions with other questions, and by doing so, was teaching them to observe their surroundings new ways— to ask the questions that get to deeper understandings instead of focusing life on themselves.
So as the disciples are huddled together, afraid for their lives, afraid for what this ending of Jesus’ life means for all that they have learned and all the ways they have changed in their understanding of God, Mary comes running back to tell them that Jesus’ body is gone— he is not there— which of course brings up more questions rather than answers. And then Jesus appears to them in that locked room and says, “Peace be with you” and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, giving them authority to continue with his ministry. But Thomas was not with them. He was not there to receive the news; he was not there to meet the resurrected Jesus; he was not there. So when he does get back and they share all of this with him, Thomas says to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
And for this Thomas has been called, two thousand years later, Doubting Thomas. Oh, how I wish we could let go of that nickname. What did he do to deserve that nickname, anyway? Did any of the other disciples believe before Jesus appeared to them? Mary, walking with Jesus in the garden, didn’t even know it was him before he point blank told her who he was. Why do we expect Thomas to be able to do what none of the other disciples did? Why do we expect him to have super faith? Especially when we look at what we know about Thomas. As one scholar put it, Thomas is kind of the Eeyore disciple. When Jesus wants them to all go back to Judea and they all know that it is dangerous to do so, most of the disciples just tell Jesus he’s crazy but Thomas says, “Let’s go with him, so we may die with him.”
When Jesus is talking about how he will be with God soon, and that they know where he is going, all of the disciples are silent— presumably confused by what he is saying— but it is Thomas who says, “We have no idea where you are going. How can we possibly know that?” (2)
And now here, when everyone else has experienced Jesus’ presence, and Thomas missed it, he just tells them straight up— “Guys, I’m going to have to see this one to believe it.”
But while the church may have created a nickname to chastise Thomas’ questions, the Bible does not. The disciples have no response for Thomas that was recorded. We don’t know what Thomas’ friends thought or said, but we do know this— and this is crucial: that a week later, as they are all still gathered, Thomas is still with them. No one has run him out. No one has made him feel less than so that he didn’t feel welcome anymore. It would’ve been easier, really, to leave the group at this point— at the point where they are afraid of being hunted down and killed too— but Thomas is still with them; still a part of the community; and whether they realized it or not, Thomas makes their community stronger precisely because he is willing to ask questions, to be curious, to state what is needed.
Scientists too, are not immune to disagreement, to doubt, to questioning each other. It’s how discoveries are made— it’s how science keeps finding out new things. Questions are imperative to science, just as they are to faith.
Werner Heisenberg, a German scientist in the 1920’s began to get curious about electrons and their position in space. He imagined that they did not always exist, but rather only existed when they were crashing into one another. When they are not being disturbed, you can’t map where they are because they aren’t really in any particular space. Einstein, at the time, thought this was crazy. He tried over and over again to prove that this isn’t true— he believed in a definite order in the universe, whereas this seemed way too random. But Einstein could also see the brilliance of this idea. So, while grumbling all the time that this didn’t make much sense, Einstein also proposed Heisenberg for a Nobel Prize, admitting that he had noticed something about the universe that is very important. A century later, scientists are still using the science, called Quantum Mechanics, that Heisenberg had discovered, while also still arguing about what it means. Are we missing a piece of the puzzle? Are there large things that we still don’t understand? Or is all of reality based in this interaction of particles— is our reality only able to be seen in relationship to everything else? (4)
An interesting thing happens when Jesus appears to the disciples again, this time with Thomas. Once again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And then Jesus says to Thomas, “Go ahead, Thomas. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus doesn’t chastise Thomas for not believing, he encourages him. Jesus does not say, “you can’t touch me, you shouldn’t need any proof!” Instead, Jesus invites Thomas to get what he needs in order to believe. And in that moment, without even reaching out to touch him, Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
It is not the resurrection that Thomas needed to believe in. In the end, it was Jesus that Thomas needed to believe in. And in this moment Thomas makes the most pure and clear statement of faith that is made in the whole Gospel— “My Lord and my God.” It is not the holes in Jesus’ hands, nor is it the feel of the wound in his side, that brings Thomas to faith, though he thought that’s what he needed. Instead, it is his relationship with Jesus that brings him to see the world in a new way.
It turns out that quantum mechanics relies on probability. It relies on relationships to know where the electrons are and what they are doing.
Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t that what God has been telling us all along? It is our relationships that matter in this world. It is our relationship with God that keeps us moving and knowing our place in this world. It is the things we can’t explain that cause us to cry out in wonder, “My Lord and my God!” And nothing is ever the same again.
(1) Everything Happens podcast with Kate Bowler, Season 3, Episode 4. (2) Clark-Soles, Jaime. An essay adaptation of Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel; 4/23/2017 from WorkingPreacher.org (3) Lewis, Karoline. “Getting Unstuck;” 5/11/2008 from WorkingPreacher.org (4) Rovelli, Carlo. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Riverhead Books, 2016.